My first visit to Louisville, Kentucky was in the late-eighties. My father (who was then chief of police in Westbrook, Maine) took our family on a road trip to Kentucky to attend a police convention. I even invited a childhood friend (whose dad was also a cop). As kids we thought police were cool. COPS aired Sunday nights on Fox, I dressed-up in my dad’s old uniforms, and played ‘cops and robbers’ with children in the neighborhood. I even skipped school once to watch one of those corny Police Academy movies. This was the world I knew and, like my white privilege, this upbringing socialized my perspectives on the world.
The second time I visited Louisville was in March 2015, this time I was there to examine and challenge this socialization while attending the White Privilege Conference (WPC) with Dean Mary Watson and some colleagues from The New School.
The WPC is a gathering of students, educators, social workers, administrators, members of faith organizations, lawyers, and, yes, police. Dr. Eddie Moore held the first WPC in Iowa in 1999 and has been meeting in cities throughout the US ever since. When I spoke with Dr. Moore before the conference, he told me when he first thought of the idea, people advised him to “Change the name to something more palatable like the ‘diversity’ conference.” Critics decried that the powerful title 'white privilege' would invariably turn people away. This has not been the case. Over the years, the WPC has become more popular. At this year's conference, there are close to three-thousand attendees. (Admittedly, some locals I encountered in Louisville were confused by the title, thinking it was a conference encouraging white supremacy.)
According to its website, The WPC “offers solutions and team-building strategies for anti-racist organizers to work toward a more equitable, just, and humane world.” Attendees gather to learn about power, privilege, and oppression in not only America, but internationally, and (perhaps toughest of all) internally. This was to be a strikingly different experience from my childhood trip to the city of bourbon and BBQ, but one I was glad to have had to reflect on when considering the ongoing discriminatory practices of law enforcement against black lives alongside the militarization of police throughout our communities. What seemed cool as an ignorant child now seemed perverse and unjust as an adult.
A week before the WPC, President Obama spoke from Selma to commemorate and honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in which civil rights activists were brutally attacked by Alabama State Police when attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th 1965. The President said, “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”
Part of the work happening at the WPC was just that - to give purpose and to inspire the work of future generations to not only learn about the specious tenants of racism, but to develop ways of dismantling them as well. The WPC creates a safe place for people to openly discuss and understand race and privilege. Like any other conference, there were inspiring keynote speeches, informative workshops, performances, film-screenings, and lots of networking opportunities. But one of the more challenging (and unique) aspects of the conference was at the close of each day when attendees broke-up into their respective 'caucuses' - white people met with whites, black people with blacks, asian people with asians... Each caucus was led by a trained facilitator. The point of the caucuses were for people from similar racial groups to freely talk through what they had learned and/or were having trouble understanding.
I was surprised by the amount of ignorance evident in my own white caucus. I assumed most people here had already done some anti-racist workshops. Of course, many were well-intentioned liberals -some who had, yes, done the work to understand their own privilege, some volunteered time in underserved communities. Nevertheless, it became clear even the most well-meaning whites (myself included!) have a lot of work to do.
To be fair, these attendees were at least working to understand and challenge their prejudice and privilege. Most white people prefer outright ignore their advantaged position in society. We are oblivious to these benefits and often refuse to even acknowledge that white supremacy has been with the United States since its inception and (despite the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, the election of the first black President, etc.) is still alive and well.
White supremacy is expressed in America explicitly (through the attacks and violence we continue to see against black bodies by domestic terrorists or perpetrated by the state through the hands of authorized police) and implicitly (through unjust voting laws, lack of access to equal-opportunities like education and jobs, to racially biased mandatory minimums alongside our profitable prison industrial complex.) Bigotry, racism, and fear continue to deprive people from engaging in any politics to realistically address the role systemic racism and white supremacy play in the creation and perpetuation of this American empire.
As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, man in this country, I take so much for granted. Consequently, my perspective and experience with race is limited, because I have the luxury of ignoring it. I must work to understand, address, and curb my own internalized racism, which appears in my socialized mind as externalized racial superiority. (i.e., “If you’re white, you’re all right.”) If I hope to enact any real change in this world, I must start with myself. I must recognize that this system has -through no fault of my own- advantaged people like me and disadvantaged others. This oppression has always been both unfair and hypocritical. What is my fault is when I don’t call this system out, or worse, reap the benefits from its ongoing existence.
Talking about race can be tough; especially, for white people and yet, white people are almost always racially comfortable. This comfort becomes accustomed, expected, and entitled. Dr. Robin DiAngelo defines this as 'white fragility'. Accordingly, when white people here the phrase ‘white privilege’ they often take umbrage because they only hear ‘privileged’ whites – this is a common defense mechanism socialized into us.
Whites often feel the term ‘white privilege’ somehow delegitimizes their own struggle and adversity (i.e., “I came from poverty. I worked hard! My family and people had it rough too!”) True. No one can ever fully understand where each of us came from, nor the struggles we traversed to get here; however, to ignore structures that have benefitted and continue to entitle some, while blatantly discriminating and attacking others is not helpful for any of us. Most importantly, no matter who we are, white supremacy keeps us all in poverty.
Accordingly, we must begin to dismantle the systems that continue to keep so many of our brothers and sisters in chains. Much of this work will need to be done in our communities, together (i.e., "We the people, united, will never be defeated.") And as we approach an election year that is already shaping-up to be a lively one, we must recognize #BlackLivesMatter will and should continue to disrupt these proceedings so as to ensure our presidential candidates not only address the need for Racial Justice but provide concrete policies and proposals on how they will makes this an integral part of their administration.
President Obama also said from Selma, “action requires we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.” Obama went on to reject the notion that “nothing has changed.” He continued, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties.”
After all, this work isn’t -as WPC keynote speaker Loretta J. Ross warned- “about calling people out. This work is about bringing people in.” Indeed, let’s bring more people in and let’s also lean in to the difficult conversations - unafraid of making mistakes as we grow together. We must acknowledge our racial, ethnic, and religious differences through not only the adversity but through celebrating our identities as the “joyous explorations in ambiguity” that they are.